Confluent Forms LLC, located in Easthampton MA, is a boutique branding, graphic design, web design, web development, Blogger development, and PHP/MySQL application development firm providing services to customers from the Fortune 100 to local non-profit organizations and academic institutions. Serving Western Massachusetts and beyond.

We seek RFPs for Innovation, not Inspiration

by on July 15, 2009
Last updated on
One of the biggest conundrums that companies encounter when they are reviewing Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that they are interested in bidding on is whether the RFP is for a real project, or whether it's a fishing expedition for ideas to be implemented by an existing vendor or internally. The problem that companies run into is that they want to wow the prospect, they want to show that they have good ideas and can provide unique insight and value to the customer, but they don't want to give those ideas away and they don't want to waste their time by putting effort into coming up with those ideas for a project that doesn't exist or for a client that isn't ready to commit.

For us, this boils down to Innovation vs. Inspiration. If the RFP is asking for potential solutions to a clearly defined concept, challenge or goal, then that is Innovation (and good). But if the RFP is vague in its needs and throwing around a wishlist of ideas (wants) without a coherent concept, they are clearly looking for Inspiration (and bad).

We believe the situation boils down to whether the company issuing the RFP has established their requirements and are seeking innovative ways to fulfill those needs, or whether they are looking for inspiration and ideas of what they should or could be doing.

How can you tell if it's seeking Innovation or Inspiration?

We'll be the first to admit that we've spent lots of time and effort on projects that sucked us in, but turned out to be Requests for Inspiration. There is little more frustrating than hearing a few weeks after your submission that they decided to stick with their current vendor, not go forward with the project, or have delayed the project until they've done more research. It's even more frustrating when you don't hear from them for two months, and only after you contact them to find out what happened, hearing the above responses. At that moment you know you've been had and you can't help but feel frustrated and disappointed.

You can usually tell this by the information, or lack of information, that they provide in the RFP, and sometimes by the seemingly random insertion of buzzwords and industry jargon. And no, it's not a matter of how much information they put into the RFP, but the type of information that it contains.

Are they asking you targeted questions, seeking potential answers to specific questions?

Are they providing you with the necessary information to enable you to respond with detailed solutions?

Are they providing you with facts, figures, statistics and background information that you'll need to properly evaluate their RFP?

And simply,

Did they do their own homework before asking you to invest your time and effort?

If in the process of starting your proposal you find yourself actually defining the project (as opposed to defining your solution) you've clearly determined that they are seeking Inspiration, not Innovation.

Organizations must invest their time and effort... before asking Companies to invest theirs

In an earlier article we wrote 6 steps to writing a better RFP; there is a reason why the first step is to do your research and define what you are seeking. We also wrote that not all RFPs are worth a proposal. Beyond setting the stage for the project, enabling a hopeful apples to apples competitive bid process, and getting your internal ducks in a row, doing your homework shows to the companies that are preparing to spend lots of non-billable hours that you are serious about your project and serious about hiring a partner to work with you.

As an organization soliciting bids, it is important that you clearly articulate your vision of the perfect proposal and proposing firm for your project.

What are you seeking to accomplish?

What are the boundaries that the firm must work within in their proposed solution?

What are the factors that will influence your decision in selecting a proposal?

What are the constraints within your project (financial, technical, political, etc.)?

Is there a defined project or solution request here or are you simply seeking information and ideas for free?

In closing, it's important for organizations to acknowledge that companies put a lot of time and effort into creating proposals, all of it non-billable, in the interests of winning your business. It is unfair of you to put forward a Request for Inspiration, and in the long run, could hurt your reputation in the industry as well as the quality of future RFP responses.

Join the conversation


  1. This is a good post. As it is generic and could be describing a number of "solution" types it is sound advice and provides a nice steer. In the world of digital, specifically social media RFPS, some organisations cannot be anything other than vague. This is because they just don't know what they need. It is difficult for them to be precise. So round one of tenders, usually results in a number of agencies being put through the mill (as your last paragraph describes) but without any return. If this happens, it usually results in the said organisation (having absorbed all the free consultancy and ideas) having a bash themselves...with varying degrees of success. The poor agencies, who expended a lot of time and effort, can only gaze on feeling used and abused. It's a shame there is no defined business ethics for this. Maybe, the default is to charge for the pitch? A test of how serious the organisation is and it would result in some blinding responses.

  2. I disagree with the statement that "It is unfair of you to put forward a Request for Inspiration". Mind you, I don't agree with any company creating an RFP in order to be inspired but I do think there is a place for vendors to provide inspiration for companies serious enough to invest. The best way I have seen this handled is by putting together neccessary deliverables before you begin work, then validating these prerequisites through a paid Discovery process. Where at the end of the discovery process there is a take away for the client that either leads to a solid go/no-go decision.

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    I would categorize what you are saying as "innovation", not "inspiration". The gripe I'm describing in the article is the companies that really don't have any true intent to award a project, let alone to a new vendor, but are using it as a fishing expedition. They don't have a budget set up, and likely have no intent to hire anyone for anything, but are seeking to get free business consulting through the issued RFP.

    Thank you for the comment!